Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Literature Professors Write Fiction?

When I was halfway through my MA program for Literature, a PhD student in the program gave me the following sage advice: “If you’re going to be a serious student, don’t take creative writing courses.”  Partly he meant that since you’re getting a degree on literature, you should chase one rabbit at a time.  Writing a short story is time you could be writing your MA Thesis, or drafting an article, or doing something to get you into a conference or PhD program.  However, beneath this was a threat of not being taken seriously: enrolling in a creative writing course at the MA level (for a non-creative writing MA) is amateurish.  It smacks of not being quite serious, or worse, being a dilletante.  “I would never enroll in a creative writing course,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.  I went ahead and took the course, since it was taught by an author whose works I deeply enjoyed.  No regrets, either: I learned a lot from the course, finished my MA Thesis, and got into a halfway decent PhD program. 

Yet this conversation lingered in my mind years afterward, since I could never shake the bug of writing fiction.  Throughout my PhD program, I worked on short novels, short stories, and one-act plays.  I managed to publish one short story in an obscure on-line journal, and one play was a finalist in a radio contest (but ultimately lost).  In short, I had almost zero success and no prospects for future publication.  So why did I keep doing it?  It’s not that I was remotely bored: I was taking numerous classes, learning to teach, studying for exams, and welcoming my first two children into the world.  Indeed, the very year I was toiling away on my PhD dissertation, I would often take breaks to finish a young adult fantasy novel.  Quixotic, to say the least.  Had I merely concentrated on the dissertation I’m sure I would have written a better work, rather than the document I did complete, which only met with lukewarm acceptance by my director.  To this day, I think if I didn’t have a job lined up, she would have forced me to make even more revisions.  I also didn’t publish anything in grad school or go to many conferences; instead, I read voraciously and wrote pages and pages of prose—most of it scholarly, but a sizeable portion of it straight fiction.  And we’re not talking thoughtful, literary musings, either; no, it was either fantasy literature or mocking, satirical sketches.  Nothing, in short, that would land me a job or impress a single one of my colleagues or mentors. 

Is it conceited to persist in writing fiction when you’ve already committed to a life of scholarly pursuits?  A literature professor, by definition, teaches and writes about literature.  To get tenure you’re supposed to publish prolifically about your subject, as well as go to conferences to lecture to rows of empty seats in a poorly lit hotel (I once read a paper to 6 people—and 3 were on the panel with me).  Joking aside, being a professor is a serious and all-consuming vocation, and one that ill-affords side jobs and projects, particularly of a creative nature.  Shouldn’t we leave writing to the artists who have devoted their own lives to this vocation...and aren’t people like us cursed to write pallid and derivative works in an attempt to live up to the works we teach in class?  As a writer from NYC once told me in a creative writing workshop (during my PhD program—I sneaked into one), “writing teachers are never good writers since they think like teachers; you simply can’t do both.  Either you’re a good teacher or a good writer.”  Ironically, she was being paid to teach us how to write, so there you go.  But is it true?  As a life-long academic and educator, have I lost the essential spark to write fiction?  Is it an illusory will o’ the wisp that I chase to distraction and oblivion?  Or less poetically, should I finally hang up the pen and simply write what I know best: articles about teaching Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe? 

My answer to this question is no, even with the knowledge that my writing probably is pretty derivative, second (or third) rate, and will never be published.  The reason is simple: how can we teach literature—essentially creative writing—without embarking on the process ourselves?  As an undergraduate, I found it baffling when a professor told me he had never written a poem or short story, though he specialized in teaching both.  Wouldn’t you want to try?  Even if it was bad, even if you weren’t happy with the result, how could you teach something your entire life and not try to add something of your own to the conversation?  That’s how I feel whenever I teach Beowulf, or Robinson Crusoe, or Dracula: “my God, I want to write something like this!”  Granted, I have no delusions of writing classic literature or even something that my own students would read, but the mere act of communing with a fellow author is more than exciting, it’s educational.  All the years I’ve spent writing, largely in total obscurity, have taught me a PhD’s worth about plot, characterization, structure, metaphor, and pacing.  This doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the art or am even competent as a writer; but as a teacher, it’s given me crucial insight that somehow escaped even my most advanced PhD coursework.  In graduate school, of course, it’s all about theory, historical context, and elucidating studies upon studies upon studies of a single work.  It would be gauche to discuss the plot of a given novel, or how this or that author writes dialogue, or how they pace the final chapters of the book.  Undergraduate stuff, perhaps.  And yet, part of the reason I love and admire Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s uncanny sense of pacing: she knows when to defuse romance with comedy, or when to provide a crucial insight that changes how we see an important character, rescuing him or her from a two-bit caricature. 

Writing has taught me to see these great works as someone attempting to do the same thing, that is, to write a work where characters meet one another, engage in various conflicts, discover themselves and others, and either die or get married (or both).  Without writing my own books, I would have never seen this, something I instinctively knew and felt but had forgotten.  As much as graduate school gave me, it also took away.  What probably saved me was my dogged insistence of writing throughout the entire program.  Many of my peers complained of being drained by the experience, of hating both reading and writing by the end of it.  On the contrary, I still loved both, partially because I danced between one and the other and never quite committed to either marriage (though, in the end, I did remain ‘engaged’ to literature). 

Fast forward eight years after getting my PhD: I’ve written and published about a dozen articles, including a few that have made their way into scholarly tomes.  I’ve attended conferences and lecture about figures as diverse as Aphra Behn, Charles Burney, Daniel Defoe, and Marjane Satrapi.  Yet secretly, when no one was looking, I wrote 3 novels—all of them comical, slightly Gothic fantasy novels.  I finally bit the bullet and self-published two of them after scores of rejections from agents and publishers (some of whom told me my books would never sell because the protagonists were too old: “18 is the cut off for most Young Adult readers,” they said, again without an ounce of sarcasm).  I now have a physical monument to my Quixotic behavior in writing fiction, one that anyone can pursue and buy electronically (e-books only, since hard copies would cost too much, and that would indeed be Quixotic).  My books don’t sell particularly well and the response of reviewers certainly hasn’t convinced me to give up my day job (not that I would, at any rate).  Clearly, I’m more a teacher of literature than a writer of it.  And yet, writing these novels has made me, in all honesty, a much better teacher of literature.  It’s allowed me to read as a reader (much like my own students, approaching the work for the first time), a professor (with all his grad school apparatus), and a writer (and often a pretty jealous one, at that!).  Works I wouldn’t have known what to do with in grad school now leap out at me in all their glory, largely because I can see what writer was trying to get at.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as seeing that the writer really liked a certain character trait, and wanted to build an entire story around it (as I would have).  At other times, I can tell that a writer is trying to make a story expound an idea that simply can’t be put into words, and only through a chorus of voices each chiming in at the right moment do we hear, however briefly and faintly, that glorious message. 

So while my colleagues might chuckle at me, and other writers might shake their heads, I’m going to keep doing it, at least for now.  Not to become famous or even to write good fiction, but simply to grow as a teacher, a writer, and a thinker.  There is no greater exercise for the human brain (outside of the sciences, anyway) than trying to tell a story.  It works every single muscle, I’m convinced, to try to get people to move and speak and act like they do in life.  And then to inspire us to do things we would never do in life.  Every once in a while, I write something which makes me forget I wrote it: that is, I write a sentence or a passage which came from someplace else, deep within me, that I can learn from.  In a way, writing is how I teach myself what I already know.  If it does nothing else, I will be amply compensated for two decades of solitary labor.  I do hope, however, that if I get really and truly bad, someone will pull me aside and say, “haven’t you learned enough about literature now that you can stop play-acting as an author?”  

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